D.H. Lawrence, “Women in Love”


Originally of a set with The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love exerted a major influence over later British novelists and critics alike. Lawrence rewrote the novel throughout the war, and its setting is largely that of Europe in crisis, even if we only see it at the level of philosophical thought, rather than physical danger. The characters themselves are types of the war, but they were also all to personal for Lawrence’s contemporaries, and he was sued for libel by Ottoline Morrell (Hermione) and others.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters living in the Midlands of England in the 1910s. Ursula is a teacher, Gudrun an artist. They meet two men who live nearby, school inspector Rupert Birkin and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich. The four become friends. Ursula and Birkin become involved, and Gudrun eventually begins a love affair with Gerald. All four are deeply concerned with questions of society, politics, and the relationship between men and women. At a party at Gerald’s estate, Gerald’s sister Diana drowns. Gudrun becomes the teacher and mentor of his youngest sister. Soon Gerald’s coal-mine-owning father dies as well, after a long illness. After the funeral, Gerald goes to Gudrun’s house and spends the night with her, while her parents are asleep in another room. Birkin asks Ursula to marry him, and she agrees. Gerald and Gudrun’s relationship, however, becomes stormy. The four vacation in the Alps. Gudrun begins an intense friendship with Loerke, a physically puny but emotionally commanding artist from Dresden. Gerald, enraged by Loerke and most of all by Gudrun’s verbal abuse and rejection of his manhood, and driven by the internal violence of his own self, tries to strangle Gudrun. Before he has killed her, however, he realizes that this is not what he wants—he leaves Gudrun and Loerke and on his skis climbs ever upward on the mountains, eventually slipping into a snow valley where he falls asleep, a frozen sleep from which he never awakens. The impact on Birkin of Gerald’s death is profound; the novel ends a few weeks after Gerald’s death, with Birkin trying to explain to Ursula that he needs Gerald as he needs her—her for the perfect relationship with a woman, and Gerald for the perfect relationship with a man.

Though Lawrence is sometimes read as antifeminist, I treasure his novels because they explore female desire and sexuality at a wonderfully bodily, rather than symbolic, level. They also call attention to the vitality of female friendship and sisterhood, which accords with Woolf’s projects and with Doris Lessing’s, who begins The Golden Notebook with a reworking of Women In Love’s opening scene.

Like Howards End, Women in Love is a novel of ideas. Gerald, often read as an Ezra Pound or high modernist, is an idealist, whereas Rupert Birkin is more of a phenomenologist (or more Burkian?), not indulging sensuality as a hedonist, materialist, or aesthete, but suspending judgment for the sake of experience.

What I most noticed rereading the novel this time was the preponderance of the figurative language “like,” but especially “as if” – sometimes eight or ten times in a single page! Here are some examples from just a page:

[Hermione sang] in her low, odd, singing fashion, that sounded almost as if she were poking fun… [Ursula laughed], because Hermione seemed to be compelling her, coming very close to her, as if intimate with her; and yet, how could she be intimate?… [Hermione] spoke all the while in a mocking, half teasing fashion, as if making game of the whole business” 31.

To be sure, these linguistic figurations are hesitant similes, rather than sure, embodied metaphors, but they are also a clearer laying bare of the imaginative acts of thinking and writing. They form a kind of treatise with the reader, inviting engagement with the idea of the suspension of belief itself. This is compounded by Lawrence’s compound words and kennings – “mystic-real,” etc., highlighting language as an imaginative act as well.

The language even seems to infect reviewers – Walter Kendrick of the New York Times writes that the novel ends “as if Lawrence were annoyed with himself for failing to settle it.” In fact, the ending repeats the phrase as part of its imaginative inconclusivity:

“You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” “It seems as if I can’t,” [Birkin] said. “Yet I wanted it.” “You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered 473.

The mode of this figuration would stretch from metaphor (it is) to simile (it is like) to fictionality (as if), which seems to me one step away from the subjunctive storytelling of writers like Pynchon. In this way, they give on to a sort of utopian ideal, a fantasy of artistic hope, more than any actual belief that change will really occur. In this way, Women in Love exchanges one kind of idealism (Kantian or aesthetic, killed off in Gerald) for another (sociopolitical, still alive in Birkin).

Theodor Adorno, “Aesthetic Theory”


Adorno’s approach to aesthetics eschews the division between philosophy, methodology, and the subdisciplines of the arts he studies. (This reminds me of Deleuze & Guattari’s open approach.) The text sets up a dialectic between modern art and philosophical aesthetics, using each to reconstruct the other synthetically and historically. He called this mode of “paratactical presentation” (recall Pound’s ‘paratactical’ concatenated poetics, versus Williams’ more subordinated, ‘hypostatic,’ and vertical poetics) a mode of “atonal philosophy.”

Adorno questions whether art can survive in late capitalism (following on Hegel) and whether it can transform that world if it does survive (following on Marx). Adorno insists that if it does, it must retain “formal autonomy,” which Kant also insists on. However, he combines this formal element with one of content – Hegel’s insistence on “intellectual import” and Marx’s notion that art is “embedded” in society. Thus, paradoxically, the artwork must be autonomous, but that autonomy is always somewhat illusory. Modern art seeks to synthesize this paradox: it is “the social antithesis of society” 8.

“Authentic” works of modern art are “social monads” whose tensions express conflicts in the sociohistory from which they emerge. (In Leibniz’s terms, the monads have a sort of fractal logic – they are all a whole, but they are all also independent down the scale.) Recall that Marx, Benjamin, and Jameson, of course, also identify art as conditioned by means of production, and that, in a more tempered vein, Raymond Williams claimed that it would be as foolish to assume that a work of art could be completely free of its economic base of production as it would be to assume the opposite (its complete dependence). The tensions of these “social monads” enter the work through the artist’s struggle with the conditions of production (as materially bound as they are to history). For Adorno, this often causes works to be ‘misread.’ Adorno seeks to resolve some of these tensions, though it would be impossible to resolve them all in our current situation.

Most of the resolution of these contradictions occurs through polarities or pairs, in the dialectical fashion. Whereas hermeneutics would emphasize the import (Gehalt) of a work’s cultural meaning and empiricism would emphasize the causal relations inherent to the function (Funktion) of a work’s political purpose, Adorno wants to understand how these two categories relate to one another. The two categories can be opposed, united, or mixed in a work, but they inform each other. He generally falls in favor of Gehalt, however, stating that “Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness” 227. Thus, Adorno favors art that is socially meaningful and socially mediated, rather than that created expressly for political service (he dislikes positivism and instrumentalized reason). Something of this resonates with Kant’s free beauty – a “purposiveness without purpose,” a beauty that exceeds function.

Art should not be merely aesthetic, even if the structures of capitalism will only strangle purely resistant art. Art must be independent and beautiful, not didactic, but also politically engaged. Thus art must work out its own internal contradictions so that the viewer/reader cannot ignore the “hidden” contradictions of society. This is why Adorno loves Beckett, whose work he finds the quintessence of this aesthetic, and to whom he dedicates the volume.

Adorno’s main focus is ultimately on the dialectical and nonpropositional “truth content” of art, in which Gehalt (import) is itself a dialectic between content and form. One can judge art’s internal and external truth content – its own dynamics as well as those of the sociohistory in which it was produced. Art looks to change but does not enact it: “Art has truth as the semblance of the illusionless” 132. Thus truth content is

“Not a metaphysical idea or essence hovering outside the artwork. But neither is it a merely human construct. It is historical but not arbitrary; nonpropositional, yet calling for propositional claims to be made about it; utopian in its reach, yet firmly tied to specific societal conditions. Truth content is the way in which an artwork simultaneously challenges the way things are and suggests how things could be better, but leaves things practically unchanged” [SEP]

Like Virginia Woolf, Adorno holds 1910 as the year when art set out toward “the inconceivable.” Art has lost its naivete and should no longer seek to offer solace. It must “turn against itself” and be self conscious. It attacks what has seemed to be its foundation. Art is what it has become – like Benjamin, Adorno believes it is fruitless to argue, then whether film is art. Art is both a part of its historical moment and supersedes it (Madame Bovary). Here are a couple of quotes I’d like to remember from the first chapter:

“The unsolved antagonisms of reality return in artworks as immanent problems of form. This, not the insertion of objective elements, defines the relation of art to society. The complex of tensions in artworks crystallizes undisturbed in these problems of form and through emancipation from the external world’s factual facade converges with the real essence. Art… takes up a position to it in accord with Hegel’s argument against Kant: The moment a limit is posited, it is overstepped and that against which the limit was established is absorbed… Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogenous to it, its autonomy eludes it” 6.

“Only dilettantes reduce everything in art to the unconscious, repeating cliches… the sharpest sense of reality was joined with estrangement from reality… If art has psychoanalytic roots, then they are the roots of fantasy in the fantasy of omnipotence” 9.

Where Freud sees art without distance, as wish fulfillment, Kant overstates this with distance, severing art from desire and fragmenting the subject 10.


Friedrich Schiller, “On the Aesthetic Education of Man”


Schiller’s letters distill a number of concepts from Kant’s ideas on aesthetics. For Schiller, aesthetics are inherently political because Schiller equates beauty with good. Thus, for Schiller, aesthetic training is also political training; this is both wonderfully utopian and rather alarmingly fascist.

Written after the French Revolution, Schiller is responding directly to the political milieu of his time. He defends the study of art in a time of revolution, claiming that it is not trivial, for only beauty shows us the way to freedom. Like Kant, Schiller sees aesthetics as a sort of transitional interest on the way to a utopian politics. Schiller sees a kind of teleological development of history, in which a wholeness of the intellect and Nature has devolved into fragmented and specialized practices (a precursor to how Marx thinks of commodity production). Though we have progressed collectively, Schiller questions whether it has benefited the individual in any way. He wants to have his cake and eat it too – to continue to  progress as a society while aesthetics heals our wounds and relates the individual back to the whole again.

Why has the revolution failed? This failure seems to plague Schiller and other thinkers of the time. “Live with your century, but do not be its creature,” he writes in letter 7 (like Jameson trying to get distance as well). Schiller admires Kant’s ideas, but thinks Kant can only arise in a society so fragmented that it needs to theorize the reading of poetry. He tries to account for both the use and abuse of Reason – for the body and for feeling. If we are only sensuous, we are in complete empiricism and have no self. If we are only intellectual, we are in egotistical solipsism, and we are all self. Beauty is the balanced form of the sensuous and the intellectual (Burke makes a similar mix for love). It takes us to a space between matter and form, feeling and thinking, experience and reason.

How is this political? For Schiller, the individual and the state will parallel each other eventually (or ideally). Either the state imposes this as brutal law or individuals slowly rise to that ideal by a long, slow, reshaping to match state ideology. In a weird way, this maps onto Foucault’s ideas of the contributions of self-fashioning, but it is also creepy and potentially entails brainwashing. Schiller’s ideal swerves dangerously close to Foucault’s concern about the “self-policing” interpellated individual.

It would be interesting to compare Schiller’s ideas to Benjamin’s argument about “aestheticizing politics” (fascism) vs. “politicizing aesthetics” (communism), as well as to Althusser, who argues that art, too, can interpellate the subject through institutions and ISAs. This also reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, which both promises artistic expression as a way of conceiving outside ideology, but also demonstrates the way in which art can be subsumed by ideological structures.

Immanuel Kant, “Critique of the Power of Judgment”


Also called the third critique, this is where Kant lays out his idealist philosophies on the sublime and the beautiful. Following from Burke, Kant’s approach is much more disinterested, depersonalized, categorical, and universalizing. Kant’s a priori knowledge moves more by deduction than experience (Burke’s empiricism). His idea of the sensus communis translates its literal meaning – common sense – from the individual’s total capacity of bound faculties working together to produce judgment into a wider social realm, in which a disinterested and trained public could agree on questions of aesthetic taste.

Kant’s position is certainly one of a bourgeois, middle class individualist. Still, he opens himself for debate by inviting contestation and by asserting the self/social dynamic of the sensus communis. As with the categorical imperative, one cannot act or judge out of political interest – we must act as if a universal law exists. Aesthetics, as in Schiller, is a sort of training, preparatory work that predates political change. Kant thus advocated reform, rather than revolution.

In Kant, the object is always outside our understanding, and the subject of the treatise is the mind itself. Judgment is a sort of negation of the senses – almost an alchemical process like Eliot’s disinterestedness. In cognitive judgment, we transform the objects of the world, through mental representation, into determinate concepts via our highest faculty, reason (this is the sublime). In aesthetic judgment, we create a unified representation from the manifold, but can arrive only at a harmony of the imagination and the understanding, not a determinate concept shaped by reason (this is free beauty).

We move from the manifold (the senses or sensation) to the intuition (representations in the imagination) to the generation of concepts (understanding) to our highest faculty, that of our ides (reason). Our senses are at the level of nature, while our Reason is at the level of freedom, and we move osmotically up and down this ladder of mentality as we order the world around us.

One of the most fascinating subjects of Kant’s inquiry into the beautiful is the crustacean or the rare bird or tropical flower. Kant gives all of these as examples of things that exist as ornament or drawing, not as natural, or having entelec function (recall that Kant prioritized the bounding line of form over the filling color of content – think about this in terms of Blake’s drawings (line filled in later) versus Lily Briscoe’s painting in To the Lighthouse, which engages color before line and strict form, or The Waves, where the female characters see color and the boys see form).

My reading of this fascination is a relation to defamiliarization – free beauty is that which we cannot categorize, a novelty we cannot subsume (Lolita). Whereas adherent beauty seems to unite beauty and cognition, form and function, free beauty lies in an excess of form to its function. This reminds me of Nabokov’s theories on the chance excess of evolution – how butterflies are far more detailed in their colorful trickery of predators than their predators’ senses can sense. This is where Kant’s confusing distinction of “purposiveness without a purpose” might be explicable, at least to an extent.

In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime is a negative, rather than a positive, pleasure in Kant. Unlike Burke, beauty is above the sublime as experience for Kant. Beauty is contemplation, an (in)determinate concept at the realm of (imagination and) understanding, a spatial and static harmony, a purposive form or limitation. On the other hand, the sublime is a toggling between repulsion and attraction, a dynamic narrative of experience, an indeterminate concept at the level of reason, a contra-purposive with a limitless higher purpose. The mind is fitted to the beautiful; it is unsuited, at least initially, to the sublime. Here, the object is a springboard for the mind, which confronts something  either mathematical (a problem of quantity or greatness) or dynamic (a problem of threat or fear).

The experience of the sublime is one of regaining power over experience. In the mathematical, the mind uses what it already knows to overcome the problem, moving from a failure of imagination to a reasoning of the totality by a whole based on comprehensible units (concepts of space time for example. One wonders if, once conquered, such a concept transitions into beauty…) In the dynamic sublime, the solution is narrativization – one moves to a picture of the whole synthesized by the imagination in discourse. As the body is in danger, but not really, one learns that the power of nature does not have dominion over our power of reason. The distinction seems to be one of apprehension vs comprehension. The proper distance is required for the sublime.

Kant is implicitly defending defensive, but not offensive, war. This is bound to the value of Protestant individual/national concerns, rather than Catholic objective idol/ imperialist concerns for Kant. It would be interesting to compare his ideas on “formless” feeling to Bakhtin and the “formless” novel.



Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry”


Burke sets out to define and explore beauty with greater precision than has been done before. He defines taste as the judgment of imagination and art 13. He gives language as a sort of proof for universal taste, and locates sight as perhaps the simplest aesthetic source of agreement: we all prefer sunshine and swans to clouds and geese, he claims 15. Taste is a composite, moving from the senses through the imagination up to the level of understanding – it is not a separate faculty.

Burke argues that our minds are more apt to trace resemblances than differences “because by making resemblances, we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock, but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination” 18. Though knowledge has increased over time, Taste has not changed 19. Aesthetics are common across nations and classes of men through “the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated… the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident” 20. We differ in the degree, not the manner, of our response, either through closer attention to the object or greater natural sensibility to its charms 21.

Bad taste arises from “a defect of judgment” which is either “a natural weakness of understanding” or “a want of proper and well-directed exercise” 23. For Burke, like Kant and Schiller, aesthetic training promises what Kant calls a sensus communis, where the “common sense” that unifies man’s faculties is translated to communal taste.

Curiosity is the first of our emotions, but it is fickle and unfaithful in its pursuits 29. Burke separates pain and pleasure, holding that both are positive – but that the removal of one does not cause the other. Rather, each is something instantly felt as a positive value, not merely something that occurs in the other’s absence 31. Delight is the removal of pain, whereas pleasure is the positive experience.

The passions surrounding individual preservation hover around pain and danger, and they are the ones we feel most powerfully 36. For Burke, anything that excites terror is sublime. The preservation of mankind must be incited by a great pleasure (sexual pleasure), but its absence is not significantly painful 38. Men do not make love in seasons because reason already moderates the frequency of sex. The pleasure of sex is a mixture of love and lust, and the object of this feeling is women.

Burke wonders why beauty, which is separable from the sexual, should inspire feelings of tenderness in us – why God ‘designed’ it so 39. He turns first to sympathy, which is “a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected… it is by this principle chiefly that poetry, painting, and the other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” 41. I’m struck by how this model of sympathy poses it as a form of metaphor or figuration.

But we also take delight in the pain of others, namely when it occurs in artifice, for imitation “is never so perfect, but we can perceive it is an imitiation” 43. Imitation is a pleasure in itself. When the object is something we would otherwise not have interest in, an artwork has its strength mainly in mimesis (form, not content) 45. When the object is something spectacular, then the artwork is mainly about the object itself (content, not form) 46. Burke concludes the section by acknowledging that if he has made mistakes, he at least “clears the way for others” 50.

The next section investigates the sublime and the beautiful. Burke once again emphasizes the primacy of the visual. The sublime must be something we cannot fully know, but this is actually better effected by language than visual imitation 54. “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea,” since a great idea will appear boundless 58. God, for this reason, is sublime. Burke compares length, height, and depth as modes of the great dimension of the sublime [these are also the visual dimensions of cinema – think Linda Williams on Avatar!] Depth is more sublime (looking down) than looking out or up can be 66. “No work of art can be great, but as it deceives,” and this it does by dimensions that appear boundless, but, paradoxically, not in excess 70.

Magnificence, which is the profusion of things, is also sublime [faceting]. Stars are not beautiful as one, but in their number.

“In works of art, this kind of grandeur, which consists in multitude, is to be very cautiously admitted; because, a profusion of excellent things is not to be attained, or with too much difficulty; and, because in many cases this splendid confusion would destroy all use, which should be attended to in most of the works of art with the greatest care; besides it is to be considered, that unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have a disorder only without magnificence” [Jameson, postmodernism, hysterical realism] 72.

“There are also many descriptions in the poets and orators which owe their sublimity to a richness and profusion of images, in which the mind is so dazzled as to make it impossible to attend to that exact coherence and agreement of the allusions” 72.

Smell and taste have a lesser role in greatness than sight and even sound [think of Vivian Sobchack: cinema is not touch itself, but s(t)imulates it]. Burke turns to beauty next. He contends, vs the Greeks, that beauty is not in proportion or measurement. He uses the scientific method to claim that if “two bodies produce the same or a similar effect on the mind,” the properties in which they agree, rather than disagree, should be examined 85. Beauty is varied not just between species of flora and fauna, but individuals of the same species (women). Still, “there is a certain proportion in each species absolutely essential to the beauty of that particular kind,” and “the beautiful in each kind will be found in the measures and proportions of that kind” 90. (This is where Kant will divide beauty and free beauty.)

If beauty were utility – the suitedness of a particular being to “answer its end,” then we would find many things beautiful that we instead find ugly 95. To be beautiful, the imagination must “revolt against the reason” 99. Burke considers that women affect weakness and silliness because “beauty in distress is much the most affecting” 100. We do not love the father’s authority as we do the mother’s tenderness 101. Beauty is “some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” 102. Thus beauty is the mediated sensual experience of the object. Beauty is usually small, whereas the sublime is usually large (TV/cinema).

Burke then moves on to claim that every lovely thing is smooth: leaves, flowers, streams, “coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skins; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces” 104. (Already underlying this idea seems to be the lack of challenge beauty presents, vs. the sublime – it is facile.) “Any ruggedness, any sudden projection, any sharp angle, is in the highest degree contrary” to beauty 104. He even imagines the suturing of the gaze across a woman’s body – the smooth maze around her neck and chest where the eye wanders 105.

Burke finally turns to touch. He claims that pleasing surfaces “are so by the slightness of the resistance they make” – “bodies which continually vary their surface,” but never “suddenly… squares, triangles, and other angular figures, are neither beautiful to the sight nor feeling” 110. In the end, beauty and the sublime are so explicitly gendered in Burke that to state it is an embarrassment.

Burke admits that many of these are his own personal conclusions. He also writes, in advance of Sobchack, as it were: “Our minds and bodies are so closely and intimately connected, that one is incapable of pain or pleasure without the other” 121. Some have periodized this as a loss in postmodernism, but it would be interesting to counter that with “cinesthetic bodies.” Love is one such connection of the mind and the body (beauty and lust) 136. Burke ends by beginning to prioritize poetry, since “words… [are] capable of being the representatives of these natural things… able to affect us often as strongly as the things they represent, and sometimes much more strongly” 161. (Think of Forster and sympathy, as well as how Burke himself makes sympathy a figuration…) Still, the purpose of the treatise, he asserts, was to create a standard of taste across genres.


Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”


Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility — unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it — that goes by the cult name of “Camp.”

Camp is especially hard to talk about because it is not natural – “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques. Apart from a lazy two-page sketch in Christopher Isherwood’s novel The World in the Evening (1954), it has hardly broken into print. To talk about Camp is therefore to betray it.

For Sontag, the draw to talk about Camp seems parallel to how Kant describes the sublime (think of Ngai?):

I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can. For no one who wholeheartedly shares in a given sensibility can analyze it; he can only, whatever his intention, exhibit it. To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

Though I am speaking about sensibility only — and about a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous — these are grave matters. Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse. To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas. (One of the facts to be reckoned with is that taste tends to develop very unevenly. It’s rare that the same person has good visual taste and good taste in people and taste in ideas.)

Again, Sontag’s insistence on some sort of consistency appears Kantian:

Taste has no system and no proofs. But there is something like a logic of taste: the consistent sensibility which underlies and gives rise to a certain taste. A sensibility is almost, but not quite, ineffable. Any sensibility which can be crammed into the mold of a system, or handled with the rough tools of proof, is no longer a sensibility at all. It has hardened into an idea . . .

The form of jottings, rather than an essay (with its claim to a linear, consecutive argument), seemed more appropriate for getting down something of this particular fugitive sensibility. It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.

In her “jottings,” Sontag argues that Camp is an aesthetics not of beauty, but of artifice and stylization. “To emphasize style is to slight content, or to introduce an attitude which is neutral with respect to content… disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical.” Camp is not simply a way of seeing (Kantian/idealist), but also a quality that inheres in objects: “the camp eye has the power to transform experience,” but only certain objects will work. Among the objects Sontag names are Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley, “The Enquirer,” Bellini’s operas, women’s clothes of the twenties, and “stag movies seen without lust.”

Visual decor, fashion, and furniture are particularly amenable to camp (think Mad Men’s surfaces…). “Camp is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.”

“Most people still go to the movies in a high-spirited and unpretentious way. There is a sense in which it is correct to say ‘It’s too good to be Camp’… Many examples of Camp are things which, from a ‘serious’ point of view, are either bad art or kitsch. Not all though… some art which can be approached as Camp… merits the most serious admiration and study.”

Nature cannot be campy (think of this vs. the sublime). Camp often has an element of naivete, however, that might be called “urban pastoral.” Camp is “the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not.” Art Noveau is a perfect example because it “convert[s] one thing into something else… the Paris Metro entrances.”

“The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility… the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo… a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.”

Camp also favors “a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms… movie stars.”

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks… To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It’s the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

“Camp is the triumph of the epicene style. (The convertibility of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ ‘person’ and ‘thing’… Life is not stylish. Neither is Nature.”

“The dividing line seems to fall in the 18th century… Gothic novels… caricature, artificial ruins… Today’s Camp taste effaces nature, or else contradicts it outright. And the relation of Camp taste to the past is extremely sentimental.”

This sounds quite a bit like James Wood on hysterical realism or Jameson on postmodernism – how might artifice work differently, though? As other than nostalgia? She pics the 18th century for “that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry… conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character… continuing wanly through 19th century aestheticism… emerging full-blown with the Art Nouveau movement.”

“Art Nouveau is full of ‘content,’ even of a political-moral sort… also… a disengaged, unserious, ‘aesthete’s’ vision… what the lens of Camp, which blocks out content, is.”

“The Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken. But this is not the familiar split-level construction of a literal meaning, on the one hand, and a symbolic meaning, on the other. It is the difference, rather, between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.”

“To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.”

“Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”

Sontag’s examples for such seriousness include the Tiffany lamp, Busby Berkeley, and other musicals.

This is not so with such famous would-be Camp films of the fifties as All About Eve and Beat the Devil. These more recent movies have their fine moments, but the first is so slick and the second so hysterical; they want so badly to be campy that they’re continually losing the beat. Perhaps, though, it is not so much a question of the unintended effect versus the conscious intention, as of the delicate relation between parody and self-parody in Camp. The films of Hitchcock are a showcase… When self-parody lacks ebullience but instead reveals (even sporadically) a contempt for one’s themes and one’s materials -… North by Northwest — the results are forced and heavy-handed, rarely Camp… Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious.

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve. When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish… The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers… Gaudí’s lurid and beautiful buildings in Barcelona are Camp not only because of their style but because they reveal — most notably in the Cathedral of the Sagrada Familia — the ambition on the part of one man to do what it takes a generation, a whole culture to accomplish.

Eisenstein’s films are seldom Camp because, despite all exaggeration, they do succeed (dramatically) without surplus… The same for Blake’s drawings and paintings, weird and mannered as they are. They aren’t Camp; though Art Nouveau, influenced by Blake, is.

Without passion, one gets pseudo-Camp — what is merely decorative, safe, in a word, chic.

Of course, the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it. Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive.

Such temporal distance as is necessary for the Camp lens would be interesting in comparison with postmodernity and nostalgia:

This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment — or arouses a necessary sympathy. When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility.

Thus, things are campy, not when they become old – but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt… Garbo’s incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She’s always herself. [January Jones in Mad Men]

Camp exhibits an essential flatness (of character):

What Camp taste responds to is “instant character” (this is, of course, very 18th century); and, conversely, what it is not stirred by is the sense of the development of character. Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing.

Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn’t reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different — a supplementary — set of standards.

There are other creative sensibilities besides the seriousness (both tragic and comic) of high culture and of the high style of evaluating people. And one cheats oneself, as a human being, if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.

For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result…This sensibility also insists on the principle that an oeuvre in the old sense (again, in art, but also in life) is not possible. Only “fragments” are possible. . . . Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human – in short, another valid sensibility — is being revealed.

And third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling.

The first sensibility, that of high culture, is basically moralistic. The second sensibility, that of extreme states of feeling, represented in much contemporary “avant-garde” art, gains power by a tension between moral and aesthetic passion. The third, Camp, is wholly aesthetic. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.

One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness. The traditional means for going beyond straight seriousness – irony, satire – seem feeble today, inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled. Camp introduces a new standard: artifice as an ideal, theatricality. Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment.

Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.

Mere use does not defile the objects of his pleasure, since he learns to possess them in a rare way. Camp — Dandyism in the age of mass culture — makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

The old-style dandy hated vulgarity. The new-style dandy, the lover of Camp, appreciates vulgarity. Where the dandy would be continually offended or bored, the connoisseur of Camp is continually amused, delighted.

It is a feat, of course. A feat goaded on, in the last analysis, by the threat of boredom. The relation between boredom and Camp taste cannot be overestimated. Camp taste is by its nature possible only in affluent societies, in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence.

The peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained. While it’s not true that Camp taste ishomosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap… homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard — and the most articulate audience — of Camp… The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.

Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.

Camp is (to repeat) the relation to style in a time in which the adoption of style — as such — has become altogether questionable. (In the modem era, each new style, unless frankly anachronistic, has come on the scene as an anti-style.)


The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles. The absence of this love is the reason why such kitsch items as Peyton Place (the book) and the Tishman Building aren’t Camp.

The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.

Sianne Ngai, “Ugly Feelings”



Ngai calls her book ” a series of studies in the aesthetics of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in what T. W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” 1. They follow on gaps and Spinoza’s “‘waverings of the mind’ that can either increase or diminish one’s power to act – and attend to the aesthetics of the ugly feelings that index these suspensions” 2. Interestingly, Ngai notes that Bartleby’s area is cordoned off by a screen (and is thus ‘ob-scene’ in Williams’ sense) 3.

“Art itself… is a relatively autonomous, more or less cordoned-off domain in an increasingly specialized and differentiated society. As Adorno’s analysis of the historical origins of this aesthetic autonomy suggests, the separateness from ’empirical society’ which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of tis inability to significantly change that society – a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s ‘guilty’ self-reflection. Yet one could argue that bourgeois art’s reflexive preoccupation with its own ‘powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world’ is precisely what makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis” 2.

(It would be interesting to compare this with bell hooks on the academy and also the humor of Woody Allen.) For Ngai, art is the site of study because art : society : : ugly feelings : subject 2. All Ngai’s affects – envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, animatedness, stuplimity – are “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way… knotted or condensed… signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner… allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action… the very effort of thinking the aesthetic and political together – a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society – is a prime occasion for ugly feelings” 3.

Still, these affects are marked by “an ambivalence that will enable them to resist, on the one hand, their reduction to mere expressions of class ressentiment, an on the other, their counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense,” even if Ngai’s interest is to use them in critically productive ways 3. “Capitalism’s classic affects of disaffection [insecurity, fear, anxiety –> flexibility, adaptibility, reconfiguration of self] are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” 4. Versus Jameson’s argument for the waning of affect in postmodernity, Ngai argues that these affects are “perversely functional… the very lubricants of the economic system which they originally came into being to oppose” 4.

“In the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear… the sociopolitical itself has changed… calls upon a new set of feelings – ones less powerful… though perhaps more suited… for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency… a certain kind of historical truth” 5.

Ugly feelings can “expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” – they are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release… [they] tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions” 6-7. Overall, Ngai is “calling for a more fluid reading across forms, genres and periods than is the prevailing norm in academic criticism today” 7. “In the tradition of Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, this method of disjunctive alignment is intended to allow the texts to become ‘readable in new ways’ and thus generate fresh examinations of historically tenacious problems” 8.

Ngai contends that there is “a special relationship between ugly feelings and irony, a rhetorical attitude with a decidedly affective dimension, if not a ‘feeling’ per se… an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling… that significantly parallels the doubleness on which irony, as an evaluative stance hinging on a relationship between the said and the unsaid, fundamentally depends. In their tendency to promote what Susan Feagin calls ‘meta-responses’… there is a sense in which ugly feelings can be described as conducive to producing ironic distance in a way that the grander and more prestigious passions, or even the moral emotions associated with sentimental literature, do not” 10. (Interesting to think about this and the death of ‘postmodern’ in favor of the word ‘hipster’ or ‘meta’ or ‘ironic’ as a distancing/fearful self-loathing.)

While Ngai’s texts “are drawn from both “high and mass culture, all are canonically minor… the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions” 11. (Does this ring true? Girls, Seinfeld, vs her anachronistic Beckett examples in stuplimity… Does it serve her argument about relevance?) Ngai is particularly observant of a “subjective/objective problematic” across her ugly feelings:

“Marked by this conversion of a polemical engagement with the objective world into a reflection of a subjective characteristic, the confusion over a feeling’s subjective or objective status that we have seen become internal to paranoia also seems internal to envy… both… contain… models of the problem that defines them. Even an ostensibly degree-zero affect like animatedness has a version of this… high-spiritedness… or a puppet-like state analogous to the assembly-line mechanization of the human body famously dramatized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In the form of a dialectic of inside/outside, the subjective/objective problematic will likewise haunt Heidegger’s and Hitchcock’s strikingly similar conceptions of ‘anxiety,’ and will motivate the spatial fantasy of ‘thrownness’ that sustains the affect’s intellectual aura and prestige… between psychological interiors and bodily exteriors… similarly integral to the affect of irritation… its very liminality as an affective concept… its unusual proximity to a bodily or epidermal one (soreness…chafing) ” 21-2.

“The feelings in this study tend to be diagnostic rather than strategic, and to be diagnostically concerned with states of inaction in particular… The boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” 22.

“Genette’s unapologetically  subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment… in which a quality or value reflecting the negative or positive feeling inspired by an object’s appearance, in what amounts to a fundamentally subjective appraisal, is treated ‘as if’ it were one of the object’s own intrinsic properties. For Genette, who claims to out-Kant Kant by fully acknowledging the relativism Kant’s subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment attempted to sidestep (by asserting the claim for universality in the judgment itself), aesthetic judgment is the illusory objectification” 23.

“Feeling’s marginalization stemmed from its perceived incompatibility with ‘concrete’ social experiences [in the 70s and 80s, and in the 80s and 90s] (as Terada most fully examines) from its perceived incompatibility with poststructuralism’s skeptical interrogation of the category of experience itself” 25. [Raymond Williams may have been the first, in ‘structures of feeling,’ to argue for emotions as social constructs and experiences]

“The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with ‘affect’ designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and ’emotion’ designating feelings that ‘belong’ to the speaker or analysand’s ‘I.’ Yet Massumi and Grossberg have made claims for a stronger distinction, arguing not just that emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but that the former designates feeling given ‘funciton and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured'” 25.

Affective states are not narrativized or organized in response to interpretations of situations, says Grossberg, and Massumi claims that they remain unsequenced, undetermined compared to emotions. For Nussbaum, emotions are tied to action, whereas affects are less intentional – hence Ngai’s use of the term here. She claims you can be confused about why you’re irritated, but not enraged (though this seems debatable, given the history of American violence in fiction…)


Ngai wants to address the issue of tone, since a lack of awareness of it can mean that “purely subjective or personal experience turns artworks into [what Adorno calls] ‘containers for the psychology of the spectator'” 29.

“While there has been a conspicuous absence of attention to tone itself, critics have continued to rely heavily on the notion of a text’s global affect for the construction of substantive arguments about literature and ideology or society as a whole. The ‘euphoria’ Jameson ascribes to a cluster of late 20th-century artworks, for instance, is designed to do nothing less than advance his critique of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, in the same way that Walter Benjamin’s isolation of ‘a curious variety of despair’ in the Weimar poetry of Erich Kastner enabled him to diagnose a much broader ‘left-wing melancholy’ that, as Wendy Brown notes, extends just as problematically into our contemporary political discourses” 29.

Yet Ngai finds tone hard to define. She uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man, “a notably ‘talky’ text that offers a useful allegory of the very problem enabling tone to do its aesthetic work… how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries in a series of transactions involving the exchange of writing and money for affective goods” 31.


“The affect I call animatedness, for instance, will allow us to take the disturbingly enduring representation of the African-American as at once an excessively ‘lively’ subject and a pliant body unusually susceptible to external control and link this representation to the rhetorical figure of apostrophe (in which the speaker animates or ‘gives life’ to nonhuman objects by addressing them as subjects capable of repsonse, and, further, to connect these to a symptomatic controversy surrounding the televisual aesthetics of dimensional animation, a technique in which clay or foam puppets are similarly brought to ‘life’ as racialized characters by being physically manipulated and ventriloquized” 12.

Animation points to the production behind the stereotype – the energy and work required to animate a particular lively image 94. Rey Chow has argued this in “Postmodern Automatons” – “having one’s body and voice controlled by an invisible other… whose origins are beyond one’s individual grasp” 99. (Think of the horror film  – Creed and The Exorcist). Chow points to “film and television, as technologies of mass production, [that] uniquely disclose the fact that ‘the human body as such is already a working body automatized, in the sense that it becomes in the new age an automaton on which social injustice as well as processes of mechanization ‘take on a life of their own'” 99 (think Chaplin). In Stowe, Ngai contends, a similar manipulation is in place for the black characters in the author’s hands 100. She highlights how the show The PJs focuses humor on how institutional laxity translates into real hardship, exposing racism as a larger-than-sight problem 106.

In Invisible Man, the fascinating (to the narrator) animated doll is paralleled, though Ngai doesn’t mention it, by the narrator’s own experience as an “animated” being at the conference he’s invited to ostensibly as a speaker 116. “Thus as an affective spectacle that Garrison finds ‘thrilling,’ Stowe ‘impassioning,’ and Ellison’s narrator ‘obscene,’ animation calls for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body as well as the uneasy differential between types and stereotypes… between ‘sure bets and bad business'” 125.


Ngai examines how envy functions along the identification/desire/difference spectrum for women – both in films such as Single White Female & All About Eve and in feminist debates and conversations themselves. “Envy is, in a sense, an intentional feeling that paradoxically undermines its own intentionality” 21.


“Though Larsen turns the black-authored literary text into a ‘stinging,’ ‘pricked,’ and ‘lacerated’ surface… Quicksand’s cutaneous affect explicitly questions this ‘visible epistemology of black skin’ by pushing its logic to an extreme… telling contrast… between the epidermal rawness of the feeling and perceiving African-American subject in the novel and the unbroken smoothness of the skin that is objectified in the novel – as if only looked-at black skin can be free of inflammation or soreness” 107 (soreness as irritation). These signify the novel’s “larger effort to distance itself from the sentimental tradition of mulatta fiction and its politics of compulsory sympathy, while also enabling the text to resist the imperative that productions by African-American artists fill in their blanks” 208. The novel also works against the “assumption that, in order to politiclaly or aesthetically matter, feelings must be located below the surface or ‘under the skin’… a longstanding tradition of confining feeling to internal spaces, as well as the moralized opposition between depth and surface used to distinguish feelings viewed as politically efficacious and adequate to their occasions, from those which are not” 208. 


Anxiety “comes to assume its prominent role in structuring the ‘philosophically stylized’ quests for truth, knowledge, and masculine agency fetured in Pierre, Vertigo, & Being and Time precisely as a way of rescuing the intellectual from his potential absorption in sites of asignificance or negativity. Moreover, the fantasy of thrownness [character as projectile] central to each representation of anxiety enables the intellectual to achieve a strategic form of distance without the fixed or constant positions on which our concept of distance ordinarily depends, since the sites from which the intellectual flees are either revealed as nonplaces lacking positive coordinates, or as feminine or discursive sites already subject to projection and displacement – sinking, retreating, or in the throw… anxiety emerges as a form of dispositioning that paradoxically relocates, reorients, or repositions the subject thrown – performing an ‘individualization’ (as Heidegger puts it) that restores and ultimately validates the trajectory of the analyzing subject’s inquiry… a ‘revolutionary uplift’ which anxiety’s projective character makes available to these intellectual subjects and which directs attention away [from sinking worlds and monstrous femininity]… codification as the male knowledge-seeker’s distinctive yet basic state of mind” (246).


“While Kant’s sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call ‘stuplimity’ is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation, and combination, and taxonomic classification… comic exhaustion rather than terror” 36.

“Difference as what could be described as difference without a determinate value or ‘difference without a concept’ – which is one of the ways Deleuze defines repetition” 252 [reminds me of Kant’s free/non-purposive beauty] – “the problem of the self’s relationship to a particular kind of linguistic difference that does not yet have a concept assigned to it” 254.

In repetition, language seems beyond the production of the subject (Tod and Homer in Nathanael West). Repetition is also boredom, slowing down, thickness (Beckett, Stein). “When language thickens, it suffers a ‘retardation by weak links,’ slowed down by the absence of causal connectives that would propel the work forward” 256. (Is the logic of paranoia the same as the logic of faceting or even literary criticism? An expanding network of information in which everything must be integrated to a particular end…) For Ngai, this causes temporary paralysis, what Stein calls ” ‘open feeling,’ a condition of utter receptivity in which difference is perceived (and perhaps even ‘felt’) prior to its qualification or conceptualization,” asking how artists “engender” this 261 (seems deeply feminizing, then! not least in its duality, a hallmark of the feminine…)

“Though repetition, permutation, and seriality figure prominently as devices in aesthetic uses of tedium, practitioners have achieved the same effect through a strategy of agglutination – the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying unites… the stupendous proliferation of discrete quanta held together by a fairly simple syntax or organizing principle… less mosaic than congealaic… the accumulation of visual ‘data’ induces a similar strain on the observer’s capacities for conceptually synthesizing or metabolizing information” 263.

For Ngai, the sublime is perhaps the originary ugly feeling, “being explicitly contrasted with the feelings of qualities associated with the beautiful… an observer’s response to things in nature of great or infinite magnitude (what Kant calls the mathematically sublime) or of terrifying might (Kant’s dynamical sublime” 265. In Kant, this “failure of the imagination” and “sense of physical inferiority” are resolved by alternating between repulsion and attraction, reason and the imagination, to ultimately find reason triumph over the concept 266. This seats the interaction firmly in the mind of the beholder, rather than the object.

“Boredom’es antithetical relation to both shock and serenity, the two competing affects of the Kantian sublime, actually underscores the oddly discrepant status of affective lack throughout Kant’s writings on sublimity… the apatheia [freeing] that Kant finds ennobling involves a calmness and neutrality that ultimately distinguishes it from the dissatisfied (and often restless)  mood of boredom” 269.

Ngai talks about Stein and others as creating texts “in which the reader’s or observer’s faculties become strained to their limits in the effort to comprehend the work as a whole, but the revelation of this failure is conspicuously less dramatic… does not confirm the self’s sense of superiority over the overwhelming or intimidating object” 270. (Think TV, the hysterical realist novel?) Stuplimity is “a concatenation of boredom and astonishment – a bringing together of what ‘dulls’ and what ‘irritates’ or agitates… reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” 271. Ngai links this to slapstick, with its “small subjects” and “big systems” 272. Like many of her examples, it seems bizarrely and unnecessarily anachronistic.

For Ngai, it seems these “agglutinations” work more like suture, causing boredom, than like faceting, confronting difference? “What stuplimity does not seem to involve is the kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic tedium aimed at the achievement of higher states of consciousness… Stuplimity also evades the kind of wholly anti-absorptive, cynical tedium often used to reflect the flattening effects of cultural simulacra… the first type of tedium is auratic or hypnotic, the effect of works in [the latter would be] glossy and euphoric” 278. Instead, stumplimity “relies on anti-auratic, anti-cyclical tedium” 281.

Ngai touches on depth as important to Kant’s sublime (Burke’s too – reminds me of Linda Williams on Avatar…), versus the “superficial and almost abject horizontality” of repetition 281. If in Stein we get “a body’s outline gone flaccid, having lost its original form,” (think Woolf or Kant on outline), we are open and alert and responsive in Stein to repetition with a difference 283. This “resisting being” seems similar, too, to Serpell’s “uncertainty” and Byatt’s “agnosticism.”

Ngai next discusses Jameson and his “relentless spatialization,” his claim for glossy flattening, and the waning of great affects and considerations of time 285. Jameson’s “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory,” Ngai argues, “lacks the slick and unifying glaze of most of Jameson’s other examples… in the slippage from ‘heaps of fragments’ to ‘the fragmentary’ (a slippage in which Jameson shifts his emphasis from a specific form to the kind of aesthetic practice that gives rise to it), what gets eclipsed… is the heap” 287. (If slick is suture, jagged is heap? Actually, no, faceting instead?) “If we follow the logic of Jameson’s passage, ‘coherence’ refer primarily to a preexisting concept or idea of order, dictating in advance how particles might be shaped or molded, rather than the activity by which particles are brought together in the first place” 289. “Stein’s description approaches ‘coherence’ as a process of creating form, rather than a value or ideal imposed on things made… it involves possibility… not just of new kinds, but of as yet unforeseen kinds in the future… becoming as varied in its process as the forms that it generates… new ‘consistencies’ are produced through the ‘mixing’ of others” 290.

Ngai goes on to give a lot of examples that seem not very much like heaps, and acknowledges that Jameson calls Stein and Beckett postmodernists, and she will too. Stein: “Sometimes many years of knowing some one pass before repeating of all being in such a one comes out clearly from them” 293. Does the “time spent to organize” imply a spatial organization of a temporal experience of reading? Is faceting in the mind itself a process of integrating textual surfaces? I’d like to think of stiff panels with flexible interstices forming a moving, crystalline, if empty, structure. “Unsightly heaping offers a strategy of what Stein might call a ‘little resistance’ for the postmodern subject, always already a linguistic being, hence always a small subject enmeshed in large systems… [Deleuze’s] ‘too-perfect attention to detail’ is the main strategy… [with artists who] exaggeratedly submit to structural laws in their work… going limp or falling down, among the bits and scraps of linguistic matter” 297. (Again, think of hysterical realism and postmodernism here.)


“The preference for the narrative stretch over a compression that ‘forces us to take in the entire story almost instantaneously’ [films that make discourse time longer than story time]… reflect the difference between the paranoia that suffuses the postwar film noir and the fear that drives classical tragedy; as a feeling without a clearly defined object, paranoia would logically promote a more ambient aesthetic, one founded on a temporality very different from the ‘suddenness’ central to Aristotle’s aesthetic of fear…. These uneventful moments mirror the general situation of obstructed agency that gives rise to all the ugly feelings I examine, allowing them to function as political allegories… What seems indeterminate here, however, is actually highly determined… what each moment produces is the inherently ambiguous affect of affective disorientation in general – what we might think of as a state of feeling vaguely ‘unsettled’ or ‘confused,’ or, more precisely, a meta-feeling in which one feels confused about what one is feeling… an affective state in its own right” 13.

All these thematizes the loss of the gaze, the transformation of subject into object. (Think about what this has to do with Jameson, space, faceting, fragmented subjectivity, hysterical realism, and seriality!)

“From Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic as a rhythmic, polysemous dimension of language with the potential to disrupt a phallocentric symbolic discourse, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as an acentered network capable of undermining rigid and hierarchical structures, poststructural models of textuality emphasizing heterogeneity and invested in a politics of form do seem to demonstrate… not only that the developments of theory and poetry in the late 20th century have been complementary” but that poetry is especially suited for these language theories 307-8. Ngai ties this to the feminine being used as a means of describing the decentered, irrational subject of the late, versus the early, 20th century, as well as feminist critiques concerned with why subjecthood would be decentered at the moment women tried to claim it (re: bell hooks) 312. For Rita Felski, feminism endangers its own ends by engendering new dualities (here’s where my desire to have faceting escape duality could be good). The ‘always already’ of theory emphasizes a “linguistically and retroactively determined subject” 314.

“The amorphousness of definition can be viewed as precisely the political point… while the vague or amorphous definition of a ‘total system’ suggests a certain failure on the part of the subject to conceptualize a social whole, one could argue that it is only in such failures… that a conceivable totality manifests itself” 330. (Here interesting with faceting – never a reproduction of the whole, but a unique, productive failure of integration and conception.) “By ‘writing work’ that insistently foregrounds the subject’s inscription within the system she opposes, but also assumes this situation as the beginning point rather than an obstruction to critical intervention, Spahr stages the poet’s encounter with social totality as a negative affect per se… ‘As in theories of capital, realize this situation and see it as the beginning place for all current thinking or escaping'” 331. (This is again, like faceting, also like Oedipa Maas!)


Ngai points out that, like Adorno claims, as contentious as art gets, it is as “harmless” as Bartleby – it is separate 353. “Like animatedness, irritation, envy, anxiety, stuplimity, and paranoia – nonstrategic affects characterized by weak intentionality and characteristic of the situation of scriveners – disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully… [but disgust is] closer to the domain of political theory… in its intense and unambivalent negativity… an outer limit or threshold… preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions” 354.

Sigmund Freud, “The Interpretation of Dreams”

transl. 1913

Freud begins, “in the following pages, I shall demonstrate that there is a psychological technique which makes it possible to interpret dreams, and that on the application of this technique, every dream will reveal itself as a psychological structure, full of significance, and one which may be assigned to a specific place in the psychic activities of the waking state” 183. (This is aligned with what Best & Marcus, in “Surface Reading,” identify as Freud’s influence on symptomatic reading – looking for surprising meaning and extrapolating it to larger concepts – like Jameson & the Marxists, too.) He speaks briefly of Aristotle and “the ancients,” who saw the dream, like other aspects of the psyche, as aspects of an external reality or demonic influence 185.

The Method of Dream-Interpretation: Freud’s desire is to “specify [the dream’s] meaning, to replace it by something which takes its position in the concatenation of our psychic activities as a link of definite importance and value” 188. (This is interesting for criticism – the idea of “replacement.”) Dream-content is not a whole, however, and “symbolic interpretation” thus “goes to pieces” in dreams that are “not only unintelligible but confused” 188-9. He mentions Artemidorus, who accounts not just for symbols, but class and personality 190. This leads to great uncertainty and instability: “the work of interpretation is not applied to the entirety of the dream, but to each portion of the dream-content severally, as though the dream were a conglomerate in which each fragment calls for special treatment” 190. Freud’s key difference is to “impose upon the dreamer himself the work of interpretation… instead of taking into  account whatever may occur to the dream-interpreter” 190.

This may proceed by a “psychic concatenation, which may be followed backwards from a pathological idea into the patient’s memory… to treat the dream itself as a symptom, and to apply to it the method of interpretation which had been worked out for such symptoms” 192. (Thus the interest in the solution is less a focus than the detection of the narrative symptoms!) The patient must be made “attentive” and less critical of “such thoughts as come to the surface,” dismissing nothing and relating everything 192. (Again, this suggests that surface observation is blinkered and dismissive. It also feeds into the “confessional” mode Foucault identifies.) Freud distinguishes between reflection and observation of one’s own psychic process, with reflection showing “a greater play of psychic activity… critical… tension [vs] tranquillity” 192. The latter is superior in that it imitates phases before sleep and hypnosis 192. “Undesired ideas are thus changed into desired ones” 193. Freud actually compares this to Schiller, in an idea like Kantian disinterestedness, where the mind allows ideas to rush in before judging or dismissng them 193.

Because “the theme to which these dreams [of neurotics] point is, of course, always the history of the malady that is responsible for the neurosis,” Freud will analyze his own dreams first to demonstrate the method on a “normal” person 194. His first example is a dream in the summer of 1895 after writing the case of a mostly-cured Irma and feeling judged by her brother Otto, who perhaps believed his sister was not fully cured or had been promised a too full recovery 196. In the dream, he examines Irma’s throat, as she complains of pain, and finds a number of white scabs all over the interior of her mouth, probably stemming from an injection of propyls with what Freud and other doctors fear must have been a dirty syringe 197. As he analyzes it, Freud determines that he perhaps wishes he has misdiagnosed her so as not to be to blame for her partial recovery 198. He also wonders if he has replaced her with her dear friend, who suffers from hysterical choking, and whom Freud has wanted a chance to cure 197. He respects this woman more and her mouth opens easily, so it must be that she would yield more easily. (Interestingly, Freud is close reading specific syntactic structures of his own verbal rendering of the situation, as if they were foretold!) He reads the supposition of dysentery as his belief of the other doctor’s foolish prognoses 202. In blaming Irma and jesting at the doctor, he sees that he has “revenged himself on two persons” already 202. Freud connects the mention of propyls to an ill-smelling liquer and trimethylamin to “the products of sexual metabolism” studied by a friend of his 203.

“This substance thus leads me to sexuality, the factor to which I attribute the greatest significance in respect of the origin of these nervous affections which I am trying to cure. My patient Irma is a young widow… in what a singular fashion such a dream is fitted together! The friend [of Irma’s] who in my dream becomes my patient in Irma’s place is likewise a young widow” 203.

The turbinal bones, according to Freud’s friend, has also noted “several highly remarkable relations betweent the turbinal bones and the female sexual organs” 204. The syringe fear is another way of blaming Otto, since Freud prides himself on clean utensils 204. Now he extrapolates a meaning of this dream: its content and its motive are the fulfillment of the wish that Otto, and not he, is to blame for Irma’s incomplete recovery 205. (Interesting that content and motive are the same, though form is not!) He also replaces his patient with “a more sensible and a more docile one” 205 (ew, misogyny). This is “a plea” for “professional conscientiousness” in Freud’s mind 206. “The material is apparently impartial, but the connection between this broader material, on which the dream is based, and the more limited theme from which emerges the wish to be innocent of Irma’s illness, is, nevertheless, unmistakeable… dreams do really possess a meaning, and are by no means the expression of a disintegrated cerebral activity, as the writers on the subject would have us believe. When the work of interpretation has been completed the dream can be recognized as a wish-fulfillment” 206.

The Dream as Wish-Fulfillment: Freud gives the example of a drink about thirst as “a dream of convenience,” where he suggests not that the dream is designed functionally to wake the dreamer and to satisfy the thirst, but instead “if I succeed in appeasing my thirst by means of the dream that I am drinking, I need not wake up in order to satisfy this” 209. (This is a perfect example of symptomatic reading – where the dream is actually capable of sufficing for the real!) He addresses the cliche “in my wildest dreams” to suggest that dreams are an act of anticipation and wishing 216.

Distortion in Dreams: “Wish fulfillment is the meaning of every dream” 217. (And here we see the grounds of the paradigm that will lead to such things as the death drive; if we die in our dreams, it must be a wish.) “Let us compare the manifest and the latent dream-content” 218. “That the dream actually has a secret meaning, which proves to be a wish-fulfillment, must be proved afresh in every case by analysis” 225. Freud notes that almost all his patients try to stump him with dreams that run contrary to wish-fulfillment, such as an “intelligent lady patient” who wishes to give a dinner but has nothing available but salmon, and must give up the dinner because the market is not open on Sunday 225. He asks her for the stimulus from the preceding day that led to this dream. He presses beyond the teasing relationship she has with her husband and the latter’s idea that he is getting fat and shouldn’t go to any more dinners 226. Freud finds that she has a thin friend (lucky for her, her husband prefers plumper women) who wishes to be plumper and wants to come to dinner for the patient’s good food 226. Now Freud is able to read this as the wish-fulfillment of preventing her friend from getting rounder and thus more attractive to the patient’s husband, and she has learned that one gains weight this way through her husband’s refusal of more invitations 227. The friend’s favorite food is salmon, so this is also a “hysterical identification” on the patient’s part with her friend 227.

“In hysteria identification is most frequently employed to express a sexual community. The hysterical woman identifies herself by her symptoms most readily – though not exclusively – with persons with whom she has had sexual relations, or who have had sexual intercourse with the same persons as herself. Language takes cognizance of this tendency: two lovers are said to be ‘one.’ In hysterical phantasy, as well as in dreams, identification may ensue if one simply thinks of sexual relations; they need not necessarily become actual… she expresses her jealousy of her friend… by putting herself in her friend’s place in her dream, and identifying herself with her by fabricating a symptom (the denied wish)… she would like to take her friend’s place in her husband’s esteem” 228.

The Material and Sources of Dreams: “in every dream we may find some reference to the experiences of the preceding day”  – “the experiences on which one has not yet slept” 239-40. (Think narrative, Genette.) Freud considers a) The Embarrassment-Dream of Nakedness, b) Dreams of the Beloved’s Death, and c) Dreams of Examination for source material. In the first case, he wonders why we are embarrassed if our dream-spectators are indifferent 293. Here, “the impostor is the dream, the Emperor is the dreamer himself, and the moralizing tendency betrays a hazy knowledge of… the latent dream-content, of forbidden wishes” 294. Freud claims that children love to expose themselves, and that exhibitionism makes a large part of the history of neurotics and paranoids. The “strangers” are “the counter-wish” to the one person who remains absent, the “objects of our sexual interest in childhood” who never appear in the dream, though paranoids remain “fanatically xonvinced of their presence” 295.

In b), if “a painful affect is felt,” it means that at some point, the dreamer wished that person to die, thought maybe not at present (competition with family members, like siblings or the same-sex parent, may engender this) 297. According to Freud, all women have this dream 301. (Groan. Although it’s interesting that the sense of injustice, competition, and the anguish of being replaced would be more pronounced in women at this point in history.)  This is of course related to “the sexual wishes of the child… in their nascent state,” where “the earliest affection of the girl-child is lavished on the father, while the earliest infantile desires of the boy are directed upon the mother,” making the same-sex parent a sexual rival 304. He goes into the analysis of Oedipus, unable to avoid his fate, which he of course reads as the wish-fulfillment and subsequent castration (eyes) of the ‘hero’ 308. He mentions the sex-dream with one’s mother (as does Artemidorus, who details all the different positions and possibilities), and then moves on to Hamlet 309. In Freud’s reading, Hamlet’s hesitation to kill Claudius shows that his uncle has actually fulfilled his wish, and his aversion to Ophelia is furnished as proof of his desire for his own mother 310. This becomes symptomatic of “the poet’s own psychology” 310. In sum, our affects of concern and sympathy often conceal egotistical concerns and desires 313.

In c), we simply fear the burden of responsibility suggested by exams, usually by someone who has already passed a similar trial, so that it serves to allay our fears by fulfilling the wish that it will be as ridiculous to be afraid as the last time 317. For Freud, somehow, it also has to do with sexual maturity, though he doesnt explain how.

The Dream-Work: “the dream-thoughts and the dream-content present themselves as two descriptions of the same content in two different languages… the dream-content appears to us as a translation of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression, whose symbols and laws of composition we must learn by comparing the origin with the translation. The dream-thoughts we can understand… the dream-content is, as it were, presented in hieroglyphics, whose symbols must be translated, one by one, into the language of the dream-thoughts” 319. (Recall Pynchon in Lot 49 – Oedipa’s hierophany a critique of this?) The dream is “a work of condensation” – dream-content is laconic, dream-thought is prolix 320. (Again, poetry?)

“The psychic activity in dream-formation resolves itself into two achievements: the production of the dream-thoughts and the transformation of these into the dream-content. The dream-thoughts are perfectly accurate, and are formed with all the psychic profusion of which we are capable; they belong to the thoughts which have not become conscious… on the other hand we have the process which changes the unconscious thoughts into the dream-content, which is peculiar to dream-life and characteristic of it… much farther removed from the pattern of waking thought than has been supposed” 466-7.

“the dream has above all to be withdrawn from the censorship, and to this end the dream-work makes use of the displacement of psychic intensities… the regard of the dream-work for representability… condensation… the logical relations of the thought-material… ultimately find a veiled representation in the formal peculiarities of the dream. The affects of the dream-thoughts undergo slighter alterations than their conceptual content… they are suppressed” 467.

The Psychology of the Dream-Processes: “Is the ethical significance of the suppressed wishes to be lightly disregarded, since, just as they now create dreams, they may some day create other things? … I believe that the Roman Emperor was in the wrong in ordering one of his subjects to be executed because the latter had dreamt that he killed the Emperor. He should first of all have endeavored to discover the significance of the man’s dream; most probably it was not what it seemed to be. And if a dream of a different content ahd actually had this treasonable meaning, it would still have been well to recall the words of Plato – that the virtuous man contents himself with dreaming of that which the wicked man does in actual life” 548. (vs. ancient idea of prophecy, also vs. idea of control of thoughts, conscious or otherwise.) “Psychic reality is a special form of resistance which must not be confounded with material reality” 548.  For Freud, we should accept the immorality of our dream lives because when we understand how the psychic apparatus works, it abolishes us of much that is offensive – in Sachs’ words, “the monster in the magnifying glass… is a tiny little infusorian” 548. Rather than predicting the future, dreams for Freud are projections of fulfilled wishes that are nevertheless always based on information from the past 549.

Frederic Jameson, “Video” & “Film”

1993: Video: Surrealism Without the Unconscious

Jameson begins with the idea that “with the extinction of the sacred and the ‘spiritual,’ the deep underlying materiality of all things has finally risen dripping and convulsive into the light of day; and it is clear that culture itself is one of those things whose fundamental materiality ias now for us  not merely evident but quite inescapable” 67. The word media thus denotes for us 1) a form of aesthetic production, but also 2) a technology or specific machine and 3) a social institution 67. A paradox:

“…the written text loses its privileged and exemplary status at the very moment when the available conceptualities for analyzing the enormous variety of objects of study with which ‘reality’ now presents us… have become almost exclusively linguistic in orientation. Media analysis in linguistic or semiotic terms therefore may well appear to involve an imperializing enlargement of the domain of language to include nonverbal – visual or musical, bodily, spatial – phenomena; but it may equally well spell a critical and disruptive challenge to the very conceptual instruemtns which have been mobilized to complete this operation of asismilation” 68.

Jameson claims that we were “warned” by the “cleverest prophets” (probably Adorno) that the “dominant art form” of the century would be film – but why has literature had more innovation, even “intelligently and opportunistically absorbing the techniques of film back into its own substance” 68? The first two eras of film – silent and sound – are latticed into problems of the mass audience and mass culture, respectively, preceding the real auteur innovation of te 50s (Hitchcock, Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini) 69. Neither film nor literature, Jameson claims, any longer speak the rich allegory of the times – instead, it is video: “commercial television and experimental video… ‘video art'” 69. If film is large and mesmerizing, it is not different enough from TV and video art to constitute a “satisfactory translation” between cousins 70.

Jameson mentions Raymond Williams’ “total flow,” [so feminizing] which obliterates distance and memory, since TV does not leave haunting images or impose temporal structure for Jameson 70. (Again, interesting to note how this has changed with “quality TV” as well as the decline of the TV set.) For Jameson, we can get at commercial TV through video art, in the same way we get at language through experimental poetry: by seeing it as pure possibility, divorced from restriction and convention 71. He locates boredom as “a defense mechanism” – again one thinks of Ngai’s “Stuplimity” 72. As an example, interestingly, we are asked to imagine the “timeless immoble mask” of a static face on our TV screen lasting 21 minutes, according to our TV Guide 72. For Jameson, this is comparable to the photographic subject’s head being clamped into place for the necessary time of late-19th c photographs or the literature of Roussel (Beckett?), with the infinite description of objects – but here in video art, dateable to the late 60s (Paik)/ early 70s (Snow?) we have “the machine on both sides… the machine as subject and object” – the camera looking at us as we are clamped into place 73.

If film, even documentary, presents a particular kind of constructed or fictional time, video art operates more on “real time,” the uncomfortable time of boredom – when compared to TV, it’s interesting then that “out of the rigorously nonfictive languages of video, commercial television manages to produce the simulacrum of fictive time” 75. Video art makes its form this seam of space and time. All the materials of the videotext he examines are degraded:

“If we think of the various quoted elements and components – the broken pieces of a whole range of primary texts in the contemporary cultural sphere – as so many logos, that is to say, as a new form of advertising language which is structurally and historically a good deal more advanced and complicated than any of the advertising images with which Barthes’ earlier theories had to deal. A logos is something like the synthesis of an advertising image and a brand name; better still, it is a brand name which has been transformed into an image, a sign or emblem which carries the memory of a whole tradition of earlier advertisements within itself in a well-nigh intertextual way” 85.

“The matter grows more complicated… when we realize that none of these elements or new cultural signs or logos exists in isolation: the videotext itself is at virtually all moments a process of ceaseless, apparently random, interaction between them… between signs for which we have only the most approximate theoretical models… a constant stream, or ‘total flow,’ of multiple materials, each of which can be seen as something like a shorthand signal for a distinct type of narrative or a specific narrative process” 86.

Jameson reduces the multi- to the binary here – the dialectic, the opposition of subject and predicate 87. It is “Benjaminian ‘distraction’ raised to a new and historically original power” 87. ”

The postmodernist text – of which we have taken the videotape in question to be a privileged exemplar – is from that perspective defined as a structure or sign flow which resists meaning, whose fundamental inner logic is the exclusion of the emergence of themes as such in that sense, and which therefore systematically sets out to short-circuit traditional interpretive temptations (something Susan Sontag prophetically intuited… in Against Interpretation)… it will be bad or flawed whenever such interpretation proves possible” 92.

“Yet another way of interpreting… would seek to foreground the process of production itself rather than its putative messages, meanings, or content” 95.

“Once upon a time at the dawn of capitalism and middle-class society, there emerged something called the sign, which seemed to entertain unproblematical relations with its referent… literal or referential language… came into being because of the corrosive dissolution of older forms of magical language by a force which I will call that of reification, a force whose logic is one of ruthless separation and disjunction… that force… continued unremittingly, being the very logic of capital itself. [After modernism] reification penetrates the sign itself and disjoins the signifier from the signified. Now reference and reality disappear altogether, and even meaning – the signified – is problematized. We are left with that pure and random play of signifiers that we call postmodernism, which no longer produces monumental works of the modernist type but ceaselessly reshuffles the fragments of preexistent texts, the building blocks of older cultural and social production, in some new and heightened bricolage” 96.

1993: Film: Nostalgia for the Present

“When the notion of the oppositional is contested, however, in the mid eighties, we will know a fifties revival in which much of this ‘degraded mass culture’ returns for possible reevaluation” 280. The small town (the setting of the 50s) has lost its autonomy and become part of a chain. The Nietzschean position is that “period concepts finally correspond to no realities whatsoever” 282. Jameson’s example is Dick’s novel about a fake 50s village in Russia in the 90s. “The novel is collective wish-fulfillment, and the expression of a deep, unconscious yearning for a simpler and more human social system and a small-town Utopia very much in the North American frontier tradition” 283. This is cognitive mapping distorted. “Historicity is, in fact, neither a representation of the past nor a representation of the future,” but “a perception of the present as history… a relationship to the present which somehow defamiliarizes it” 284. If the future film turns into mere realism, as the Dick novel does for Jameson, and we are divorced from history, why do we subsume all styles all the time now?

“It is by way of so-called nostalgia films that some properly allegorical processing of the past becomes possible: it is because the formal apparatus of nostalgia films has trained us to consume the past in the form of glossy images that new and more complex ‘postnostalgia’ statements and forms become possible” 287.

This occurs in the unlikely meeting of high-gloss nostalgia film and B-grade punk film.

“Thus these films can be read as dual symptoms: they show a collective unconscious in the process of trying to identify its own present at the same time that they illuminate the failure of this attempt, which seems to reduce itself to the recombination of various stereotypes of the past” 296.

“Dick used science fiction to see his present as (past) history; the classical nostalgia film, while evading its present altogether, registered its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts. The two 1986 movies, while scarcely pioneering a wholly new form (or mode of historicity), nonetheless seem, in their allegorical complexity, to mark the end of that and the now open space for something else” 296. [alas, no, The Help]


Jameson claims himself as one who neither loves nor disavows postmodernism. The novel is the weakest link in art, while poems are not bad, and video and film are quite good. He appreciates improvements in food and other areas. When we compare two eras, as we always do, we compare the modes of production, occurring as contact between reader and text. Jameson concludes by arguing that capitalism’s unprecedented freedom in our era will lead to a new international proletariat and a return to older forms of labor – it is only a matter of time, since postmodernism is “a transition stage” between 2 forms of capitalism (think of how Kant and Schiller imagine aesthetics…). He says that his “cognitive mapping” was a mere rephrasing of ” class consciousness” for a new world. “The rhetorical strategy of the preceding pages has involved an experiment, namely, the attempt to see whether by systematizing something that is resolutely unsystematic, and historicizing something that is resolutely ahistorical, one couldn’t outflank it and force a historical way at least of thinking about that” 418.

Fredric Jameson, “Culture” (Ch 1, “Postmodernism”)


Jameson begins by stating that the present time (the eighties) is obsessed with “a break…. the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement” that occurred in the late 50s or early 60s (significantly a period we still seem to be making ever more movies and TV shows about, in fits of continued ‘nostalgia’) 1. For Jameson, this remains confused in literary and artistic production – a “new aesthetic of textuality,” but is crystallized in architecture (re: Brideshead’s exhausted representations of old architecture?) 2.

Postmodern architecture performs for Jameson: it “stage[s] itself as a kind of aesthetic populism” that effaces the “frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture… that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Levis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School… this whole ‘degraded’ landscape of schlock and kitsch” 2. Whereas modernism “quoted” from pop culture – think Ulysses – postmodern works “incorporate” this “into their very substance,” an odd statement not least because it’s questionable what Jameson would mean by substance here 3. The third stage of capitalism is no longer about industrialism and class struggle, but is purer, so that “every position on postmodernism in culture – whether apologia or stigmatization – is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” 3. Postmodernism, too, should be conceived for Jameson “not as a style, but rather as a cultural dominant” with “the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features” (reminiscent of Foucault on sexuality 4.

Though Jameson acknowledges that Stein, Roussel, and Duchamp seem to be postmodern avant-la-lettre, he holds that this does not account for the social history, the canonization of the modern (and even its appropriation), by the bourgeoisie 4. He also acknowledges that the postmodern is already incapable of shocking us with its obscurity and sexual content. This brings to mind Ngai’s idea of “stuplimity,” which both locates Stein and Beckett as “postmodern” writers, but also claims that the alternation between shock and boredom is key to the contemporary affect she describes.

Aesthetics are now fully bound to the economy, and this is one reason Jameson prefers the example of architecture, closely tied in its production to global corporations 5. This leads him to explain why the postmodern must not be swallowed into periodization as “modern” – it is not historically coterminous and  as a system, it does not actually obliterate heterogeneity, though Jameson is willing to interrogate the difficulty of the “‘winner loses’ logic”:

What happens is that the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic – the Foucault of the prisons book is the obvious example – the more powerless the reader comes to feel. Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree hloses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed… perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself 5.

The postmodern’s “hegemonic norm” actually highlights “genuine difference” for Jameson, protecting us from the myopic vision of our own time as uniquely ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’ 6. The postmodern is “the force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses – what Raymond Williams has usefully termed ‘residual’ and ’emergent’ forms of cultural production – must make their way” 6. Its features are 1) a “new depthlessness… both in contemporary ‘theory’ and… the culture of the image or the simulacrum, 2) a flattening or weakening of historicity through ‘schizophrenic’ Lacanian structures of syntax, 3) a “return to older theories of the sublime” in “a new type of emotional ground tone,” 4) a whole new technology tied to globalization, and 5) a mission of political art as it has shifted in multinational capitalism 6.

Jameson begins by discussing Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant’s shoes (over and against its “copiou[s] reproduc[tion] – re: Benjamin), with its “hallucinatory surface of color” as “an act of compensation” for the darkness of labor under capitalism 7. Secondarily, Jameson offers a Heideggerian reading, in which the meaningless material (Earth) is elevated through art to the level of aesthetics, society, and history (World) 7.  This is a kind of “laying bare the device,” through which aesthetic mediation uncovers the truth of the object, and again, this is partly through the materiality of the painting itself (again re: Benjamin) 8. Both readings are hermeneutical, says Jameson – they can be abstracted to larger meaning, whereas Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes” cannot. Warhol’s shoes are not “a heterosexual pair” like Van Gogh’s, but a collection of single, odd “dead objects” 8. They are fetishes, decontextualized from their original materiality and unable to be material in art either, because they are like X-ray photographs, reproduced and flattened and sprinkled with a sealing veil of golden sparkles, expressive of the return of the repressed, “decorative exhilaration,” but also “the waning of affect in postmodern culture” (an idea Ngai resists in “Stuplimity”) 10.

This is not to say there is no emotion here, but that art does not “look back” at us, and that other Warhol subjects “like Marilyn Monroe – …are themeselves commodified and transformed into their own images” (though Jameson does not gender this, he probably should) 11. Essentially, the art of anxiety, such as Munch’s “The Scream,” is predicated on a division of the inner self and the outer world, “the outward dramatization of inward feeling” 12. This is connected to the poststructuralist critique of depth models of hermeneutics: 1) the dialectical essence vs appearance, 2) the Freudian latent vs manifest, 3) the existential divide of authentic vs inauthentic, and 4) the opposition of signifier and signified – itself already unraveled 12. For Jameson:

“What replaces these various depth models is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play, whose new syntagmatic structures… [suggest that] here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what is often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth” 12.

Jameson cites the tall, flat Wells Fargo Court in L.A., which “momentarily transforms the solid ground on which we stand into the contents of a stereopticon… as fateful as the great monolith in Kubrick’s 2001,” an idea that really reminds me of Linda Williams’ concept that if the original film was concerned with panorama, the new one is concerned with height (contemporary examples: think Avatar’s cliffs vs. The Master‘s painted-scenery of flat “depths,” as opposed to old Westerns or Abel Gance’s Napoleon) 13. As opposed to Ngai, for Jameson anxiety and alienation are purely modernist affects: “This shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation” 14. In other words, it is no longer the world that is fragmented, as in modernism, but the subject. 

Like Benjamin, for Jameson this means the end of individual style, and the “emergent primacy of mechanical reproduction… a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well” – not so much the end of feeling as its depersonalization, as well as the accompaniment of euphoria to its expression 15-16. More concretely, this signifies

“the waning of the great high modernist thematics of time and temporality, the elegiac mysteries of duree and memory… we now inhabit they synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism” 16.

If parody is modern (despite the “inimitable” modern styles  – Faulkner’s long sentences, Lawrence’s natural imagery, Stevens’ evasions of certain syntaxes) because these “ostentatiously deviate from a norm which then reasserts itself” and are “willful eccentricities,” then pastiche is the province of the postmodern (though what about The Waste Land?16. “Modernist styles become postmodernist codes” for Jameson, layered atop the many codes of jargon, idiolect, and regionalism, since “advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm” 17. Pastiche is instead “blank parody” – a “linguistic mask” with no humor or satiric impulse that “cannibalizes” past styles by attaching “neo” to them 17-18. It is characteristic of “consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudoevents and ‘spectacles'” 18. For Jameson, as for Guy Debord, this is where “Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed,” becomes useful, since “the image has become the final form of commodity reification” 18.

Instead of Lukac’s historical time in the novel, we now face a “libidinal historicism,” seeking to assimilate “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum,” leaving us with “nothing but texts” 18. In the nostalgia film,  for example, “the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation” (he cites George Lucas’ American Graffiti – “for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the privileged lost object of desire”) 19. The nostalgia film sees the past in “stylistic connotation, conveying ‘pastness’ by the glossy qualities of the image… by the attributes of fashion” – he cites Barthes’ Mythologies 19. In this sense – in the “remake,” “retelling” or “historical fiction” of today, “the history of aesthetic styles displaces ‘real’ history” 20. Even stars, then, are flatter – an absence of “personality” makes them more like character actors displaying past styles of acting, and the most common setting is small-town America, eschewing the high-rise features of multinational capitalism as well as older features of civilization. This seems related to the idea of “suture” – it all “conspires to blur its official contemporaneity and make it possible for the viewer to receive the narrative as though it were set in some external thirties, beyond real historical time… the pastiche of the stereotypical past” 21.

“We seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience,” Jameson claims 21. An exception for him is the work of Doctorow, namely The Book of Daniel. Ragtime, for Jameson is “a seemingly realistic novel” that is “a nonrepresentational work” combining “fatnasy signifiers from a variety of ideologemes in a kind of hologram” 23. Jameson seems to find it positive that the novel “short-circuits” traditional interpretative techniques and “imposes” a reading mode where we must sort out real historical figures from fictional representation (reminds ME of Pynchon… why not Jameson?) 23. Here, history returns as the proverbial Freudian repressed – form replaces content as a means of communicating affect and meaning, since the “waning of content is precisely [Doctorow’s] subject” and the historical novel “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby becomes ‘pop history'” 25.

In Genette’s terms, if the subject has “lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent expereince,” then representation becomes “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory” 25. Ngai will use this image in “Stuplimity,” but one wonders how Jameson’s notion of these “privative features” of postmodern art (more kindly called textuality, ecriture, or schizophrenic wriitng 26) pushes against T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land“I have shored up these fragments against my ruin” – likely in the loss of the subject who still believes in the possibility of a ruin to be staved off? In Lacan’s terms, schizophrenia is “a breakdown in the signifying chain, that is, the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers which constitutes an utterance or a meaning” 26.

I’m interested in thinking of this in terms of faceting – not as a chain, but as a three-dimensional structure. In Derridean terms, “Meaning on the new view is generated by the movement from signifier to signifier” – akin to differance 26. The signified is then a “meaning effect… a mirage of signification generated and projected by the relationship of signifiers among themselves” 26. This “rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” is for Jameson tied to psychic and linguistic ‘health’ – if we cannot understand and express 3 temporalities in language, “the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time” 27. This reminds me not only of Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, but ironically enough, of the slogan Jameson decries: “The medium is the message”! 27. Jameson cites Sechehaye’s Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, which is where he locates the affect of euphoria in the loss of reality: “illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things” 27. I want to read this! It seems gendered, as well as connected to reading, to surfaces, and to faceting.

Related to such euphoria is the reappropriation of previously clinical terms for humor, irony, and even joy (one thinks of paranoid, schizphrenic, manic, stalker, obsessed) 29. He calls reading a kind of zoom lens, thinks of such verbal change as making meaning into the decorative, and explains photorealism as an effect of a world in which the real objects of art were not the things themselves but photos – the realism is the simulacrum 30. Criticism thus stresses “the heterogeneity and profound discontinuities of the work of art… now a virtual grab bag or lumber room of disjoined subsystems and random raw materials and impulses of all kinds” 31. This seems ripe for considering that we might join but not suture these elements, since Jameson does identify the positive value of collating multiplicity: “In the most interesting postmodernist works, one can detect a more positive concept of relationship, which restores its proper tension to the notion of difference itself… new and original way of thinking and preceiving… an impossible imperative to achieve that new mutation in what can perhaps no longer be called consciousness” 31. (Note: is the very impossibility related to old ideas of the sublime – thin Ngai’s stuplime?)

Jameson locates the euphoria of “the extraordinary surfaces of the photorealist cityscape” in automobile wrecks, new surfaces, and commodified urban squalor (makes me think of Ballard and tours of squatters in Berlin) 33. Art divides the body from space (empty bathrooms as installations vs. simulacra of the body) to form an aesthetic of “derealization,” in which “the world… momentarily loses its depth and threatens to become a glossy skin” 34. Jameson connects this to camp, calling it a “hysterical sublime” 34. Whereas for Kant, the sublime alternates between awe and terror as the mind seeks to comprehend that which is at first beyond comprehension, now he looks at this more as dead objects, as technology turning back against us in its inert forms, haunting us in its covering of nature (Auden, Silko) 35. He periodizes capitalism: 1) 1840s steam power = market capitalism (realism), 2) 1890s electric power = monopoly or imperialist capitalism (modernism), 3) 1940s nuclear power = postindustrial or multinational capitalism (postmodernism) 35. (Even the polyglot words of the third phase are conglomerations!)

Jameson differentiates the potential for movement in the old technology and architecture (think the ships of Le Corbusier – this leftist emphasis on motion reminds me of Lukacs) from the static outer shell of the computer or television, “which articulates nothing but rather implodes, carrying its flattened image surface within itself” 37. These are “machines of reproduction rather than of production… narratives which are about the processes of reproduction and include movie cameras” 37. One can imagine what Jameson would say now abut reality TV, as well as the true flatness of the iPhone and the iPad, the new computer called “Surface” from Microsoft, machines which almost efface themselves visibly as machines. For Jameson in 1984, architecture “remains… the privileged aesthetic language; and the distoriting and fragmenting reflections of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture” 37. (Note: calling it “mesmerizing” and “fascinating” is interesting because repetition/phallus roots.)

This leads to a “high-tech paranoia” – both the feeling that these machines are synecdochic stand-ins for a large, incomprehensible network (connected to the idea of the sublime?), but also the fear that that complexity cannot be overcome or understood by the “normal reading mind” (he cites cyberpnk – William Gibson, I think Neal Stephenson) 38. Our spatial creations, then, have outgrown the capacity of our minds, as if we wish to “expand our sensorium” to “impossible dimensions” (related to Kant’s free beauty?) 39. They speak the vernacular of the city, but do not aesthetically raise its tone? (Re: Adorno and the elitist’s complaint – these buildings do not seek to lift up the rest of the city, as in the modernist project). The Westin Bonaventure in LA reflects the city back, has 3 “backdoor” entrances on 2 different levels, none of which go to the lobby, and seeks to be a miniature city, Jameson argues.  (Think about this in terms of suturing off? Also vs. the arcade – infinitely enterable and exitable, where you always see the structure in the glass as well as through the glass both directions). The reflectivity of the “glass skin” repels all, giving distorted images of surroundings even as you can see out and the Other can’t see in (makes me think of Byatt, and glass/all reflective of other and/or self) 42.

Thinking of elevators and escalators as narrative movements in the building, Jameson claims that these symbolize and institutionalize movement, rather than just allowing it (Nicholson Baker’s “The Mezzanine”?) 42. You are either slowly moving against your own pace or shooting vertically up or down into another contained space, all covered in colors, streamers, and the indecipherable four corners of the hotel, which discourage orientation. In other words, we can never get our Kantian distance, because we are always overwhelmed by the spectacle (one wonders why we are so shamed by our looking and seeing – is it erotic in some way?). This is like the limits of fiction, too? Jameson politicizes this by claiming the inability to talk about war now (always?) 44. Surface and symbol are problematized in that the machine can no longer represent motion when inert, but must actually be represented in motion (video?) 45.

Though Jameson concludes that it would be an ethical mistake to accept the “delirious camp-following celebration of this aesthetic new world,” it is equally problematic to trivialize it in comparison to “the ‘high seriousness’ of the great modernisms” 46. Like Zizek, for Jameson, the world of images erases past and future into images of cataclysm on the personal and social levels 46. Even though the postmodern is essentially negative, we are all embedded in it, and if it is historical, we cannot moralize it away:

“Marx powerfully urges us to do the impossible, namely, to think this development positively and negatively all at once… grasping the demonstrably baleful features of capitalism along with its extraordinary and liberating dynamism simultaneously within a single thought… at one and the same time the best thing that has ever happened to the human race and the worst… dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together” 47.

(This reminds me to think of Byatt’s “agnosticism” somewhat. Note: weird that Jameson says we are “submerged” if this aesthetic has no depth in his framing of it.) Jameson wonders: if there is no outside the system, and the relative autonomy of the arts is no longer, what can be done? Like Foucault on power & sexuality, the irony of proliferating sexual discourses is somewhat akin here to the irony of proliferating theoretical paradigms 49.  If, for Jameson, the promise of capitalism’s hugeness is the hugeness of potential social change, how is this not like an apology for technology and globalization, which he warned us against 50? He concludes that leftists should be less afraid of the pedagogical function of art, letting go of their fear of the bourgeois reaction to modernism 50.

Jameson ends by imagining “cognitive mapping” 51. If ideology toggles between the imaginary and the real (Althusser, also like Foucault, where sexuality toggles between power and pleasure?), then art needs to be able to situationally represent the individual in relation to the vast totality, and this is cognitive mapping (“to cognitively map our individual social relationship to local, national, and international class realities” as well) 52. It seems Jameson is imagining something that will  toggle experience and knowledge, orienting the individual in her surroundings 53.  If ideology is imagined and science is real (both of which fit into Marx and Althusser’s models), then in Lacan, we also have the symbolic, and Jameson looks to political art to fill this role somehow. Perhaps sadly and ironically, it seems Google Maps or GPS or a smartphone quite literally solves this problem, but in a mode so deeply imbricated in capitalism that it can hardly be seen as a solution. Does it, however, enable the end of postmodernism and the rise of the New Sincerity? And why did Occupy fail if all this is true?